Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise

It’s tough to hear about flooding in the Mississippi Delta. First tornados, then floods: the weather reports sound like something out of a Biblical prophecy. Of what does the old Negro spiritual warn us? No more water; fire next time. That haunting phrase, based on the Book of Noah, can certainly make you stop and think.

But when I heard an NPR reporter mention Yazoo City, Mississippi, my mind wandered from the current crisis to my early days at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Though my chief duties were in story department (heck, along with Frances Doel I WAS the story department), I was also asked by Roger to help out with graphing the distribution of such classics as Night Call Nurses and Angels Hard as They Come. More often than not, our movies were booked into drive-ins in out-of-the-way burgs I wouldn’t much care to visit. But they had such wonderful names! I distinctly remember that Yazoo City was a popular venue for New World fare. My special favorite, though, was (as I remember it) the Dogwood Drive-In in Palestine, Texas.

The drive-ins were fading away even then, as the land they sat on became too valuable to devote to teenagers in parked cars. In their heyday, however, they set the scene for an unbeatably American combo: the romance of the automobile plus the romantic urges of horny young people, who could barely be bothered to look at the screen. But drive-ins were also frequented by large family groups on small budgets. Jody Armour is now a USC professor of law, but he recalls that in the Sixties, when money was tight, turning off the TV set and going on a family outing to a drive-in was a very big deal: “We’d think about it days ahead of time . . . . If you saw Planet of the Apes, one of the early movies I remember, that really lived with you. You went home and you dreamed about those huge apes that were 25 feet tall on that silver screen in the drive-in.”

In 1968, Roger Corman gave young Peter Bogdanovich a chance to direct a movie that would meld two days of work by horror star Boris Karloff with footage from Karloff’s vintage Corman film, The Terror. Bogdanovich and his multitalented wife Polly Platt dreamed up the notion of casting Karloff as an aging movie actor who is menaced by a sniper at a drive-in theater. It was a brilliant concept for a contemporary horror film, and Targets ended up launching both Bogdanovich and Platt on impressive careers. Three years later, the pair made The Last Picture Show. Apparently the Lord was willing, and both of their lives were changed forever.


  1. I always love these stories of Roger having two days of someone famous's time and everyone scrambling to write a script so that their part can be shot in just those two days. I really like the idea of a drive-in serial killer -- creepy!

  2. Targets is a wonderful little movie, Hilary. Interestingly, Polly Platt told me it draws on the paranoia she (and a lot of us, I suspect) felt after the JFK assassination in 1963. It was all too easy in that era to imagine a maniac on the loose, picking off innocent people. I guess we don't feel that different today, alas.

  3. Speaking of killers at a drive in, there's DRIVE IN MASSACRE (1976) and THE BEING (1983) has a sequence at a drive in where the monster kills off some teens watching a monster picture.

    When we moved here there were two drive in's in town. My parents and I would go on the weekends and the only movies I remember were the kung fu double and triple features. We had a station wagon and if there was a movie I couldn't watch, I'd have to get in the back and either play with my toys, or go to sleep.

    One of the drive in's is still open after being closed for years and the other ended up first as a place for people to have yard sales and then became a tanning salon.

  4. First off - Targets is a gem of a movie - to have constructed as sharp a thriller as Bogdanovich did from the elements he was given shows his true artistry as a filmmaker. It should have been the valedictory for Karloff - it would have ranked with The Shootist for the Duke as the best last movie ever. As it was, those last few movies dribbled out - after he was gone - and none of them - especially the Mexican movies he shot scenes in California for - are much good. C'est la vie.

    I got to go to the drive-in a fair amount with my folks - my mom had a Tupperware container that I could have bathed in until my teens that she would fill with popcorn, and we would bring drinks in a cooler and would munch and sip and eventually I'd climb in the back and go to sleep. I visited the drive-in as it was really on the way out in the mid 80's, and made my final visit in 1990, with a double feature of Jean Claude van Damme's Death Warrant and Bert I. Gordon's Satan's Princess the final drive-in double feature in my moviegoing life. (Unless there's a resurgence in the next decade or two)

    GREAT post, Ms. Gray!

    1. I love these memories of the drive-ins. I went rarely as a kid (my parent were definitely not attracted to drive-in fare), but the whole concept intrigued me. In fact, I'm somehow fascinated by the idea of movies being projected outdoors, against the night sky. These days movies can be seen in some unlikely outdoor venues, like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which in summer has weekly movie nights. I haven't gone yet, but maybe this is the year!